Common was fretting about the state of hip-hop way back in 1994, on his first hit, “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” a song that compared hip-hop to a girl who ran off with some gangsta guy. Five albums in, Common is on better terms than ever with the music. He describes his reconciliation with hip-hop on “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop),” his hit ballad with his main squeeze, Erykah Badu, which updates “I Used to Love H.E.R.”: “We broke up and got back together/To get her back I had to sweat her.” And he’s made the most adventurous album of his career: The new Electric Circus (produced in part by Roots drummer ?uest-love) is a free-for-all that recalls the ambition of late-Eighties classics from the Jungle Brothers.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a few pointers for his colleagues, though. “I really don’t want to be preachy,” he says over five cups of tea at a Lower Manhattan Thai-food place. But his vision is distinctly more bohemian and less bling.
1. Free Your Mind, and Their Asses Will Follow
“I worry when people are able to imitate hip-hop so well on Saturday Night Live skits — it means we have set this culture up to be just one thing. I think the big problem comes from us trying to please the crowd. We limit hip-hop to just one look, one uniform, one statement of being real: getting money and guns and women, or selling dope all the time.
“But you try to please the crowd, and the crowd might change. They may say, ‘We’re tired of that gangsta stuff.’ Or a new cat will come in, doing the same thing as you. But because his face is new, he’ll get accepted. As Ice Cube said, ‘They’ll have a new nigga next year.”
“Rock artists are allowed to just be themselves — to be the nerds or punk rockers or skateboarders or acid takers that they are. Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan or Bob Marley — they did songs about all type of different things. You can’t make yourself secure by just trying to please whatever is happening now. I believe you please the crowd by being you.”
2. Don’t Let Your Homeys on Your Albums
“In hip-hop, we let our homeys rap on our records all the time, and sometimes that’s not what they were meant to do, bro. I believe in providing opportunities for our brothers and sisters, but my record is my child: You gotta be bringing something special to a song to be on it. This is my art — if you ain’t got league game, I don’t think you should be playing in the league. There are other ways your people can make it in the music business.”
3. Check Out the Hood in Cuba
“I was talking to some of the guys from Linkin Park, and they were telling me that they toured for two years straight. Only one band does that in hip-hop: the Roots.
“Hip-hop artists need to tour more — both to build a real fan base and just to see different cultures, and know that this is a world hood. Southern cats need to experience New York and Paris or Cuba; East Coast artists need to experience Chicago and the Midwest, go down to Jamaica or Italy.”
4. Hot Producers Can Burn You
“We get coerced by our record labels to use the producers of the moment — the ‘in thing’ they think can get us to the promised land. Ask yourself: Are you making music just to have a producer’s name on your song, or are you trying to make something good? Put it this way: I think the Neptunes are some of the greatest musicians around, but what’s gonna make the consumer differentiate you from the other twelve artists that they produced?
5. Don’t Think Rhyming About Bitches and Ho’s Doesn’t Influence Five-Year-Olds
“Words are power. Don’t think you can rap about money and bitches and ho’s and shooting somebody and then make it better by giving ten dollars to somebody in the community. Your words are probably destroying more people than the ten dollars is helping. Your words are affecting the five-year-old riding in the back of their daddy’s car; your words are affecting how the world sees you. I listen to the Roots and Mos Def, and I also listen to Dr. Dre and the Clipse — we just need to have balance in the music.”
6. Look for the Union Label
“Many artists don’t have health, life insurance and dental and medical benefits — and they don’t have the legal advisers that truly have the artists’ interests at heart. I’d love to see a support system in hip-hop — actors have a union, NBA players have one, so why not MCs? I would set up medical and dental and life insurance for artists — maybe even a pension plan for old-school cats.”
7. Put Your Money in the Bank, Not on Your Records
“You really need to know what’s going on with your money; sit down and go over what’s going on with your accountant. At the same time, the music in hip-hop sometimes seems like an afterthought, because the dream is just to get money. You gotta create the art and let the finance come as a result of it.”
8. Know Your History
“A lot of shorties got into hip-hop in the Biggie-Tupac era, or even later. We can’t live back in the Eighties, and I don’t wanna try to re-create it, but to really know it, you need to know its history, from the Sugarhill Gang to Grandmaster Flash to KRS-One on up.”
9. Keep an Eye on Your Record Company
“My album’s out, and I still ain’t got all of my advance check. Hip-hop artists get less long-term development than rock artists — hip-hop albums are looked at as a product that should get a quick return, and if it ain’t catching on, they don’t work it like they do the rock artists. It’s hard, because rock artists have more of an outlet: MTV reaches more people than BET.”
10. Make Your Music Look Like Your Life
“For one, we all didn’t grow up in the ghetto. And even if you did, there’s more to ghetto life than just violence and sex and getting money — there’s a lot of beauty in the community aspect of it. That needs to be reflected in the music. Most people I know from the ghetto don’t want to glorify ghetto life — ain’t nobody happy to have to sell dope, and most people don’t wanna talk about killing people and violence. As my father used to say, ‘Even gangster dudes go to church.'”